The Futility of All Endeavors
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher.
“Vanity of vanities! All [that is done without God’s guidance] is vanity [futile, meaningless—a wisp of smoke, a vapor that vanishes, merely chasing the wind].”
What advantage does man have from all his work
Which he does [a]under the sun (while earthbound)?
One generation goes and another generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hurries to the place where it rises again.
The wind blows toward the south,
Then circles toward the north;
The wind circles and swirls endlessly,
And on its circular course the wind returns.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
All things are wearisome and all words are frail;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be [again],
And that which has been done is that which will be done again.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it can be said,
“See this, it is new”?
It has already existed for [the vast] ages [of time recorded or unrecorded]
Which were before us.
There is no remembrance of earlier things,
Nor also of the later things that are to come;
There will be for them no remembrance
By generations who will come after them.
The Futility of Wisdom
I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind to seek and explore by [man’s] [b]wisdom all [human activity] that has been done under heaven. It is a miserable business and a burdensome task which [c]God has given the sons of men with which to be busy and distressed. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity, a futile grasping and chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is defective and lacking cannot be counted.
I spoke with my heart, saying, “Behold, I have acquired great [human] wisdom and experience, more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of [moral] wisdom and [scientific] knowledge.” And I set my mind to know [practical] wisdom and to discern [the character of] madness and folly [in which men seem to find satisfaction]; I realized that this too is a futile grasping and chasing after the wind. For in much [human] wisdom there is much displeasure and exasperation; increasing knowledge increases sorrow.
- Ecclesiastes 1:3 Ecclesiastes expresses the view of the natural man whose interests are focused on vanishing pleasures and empty satisfactions. The natural man is not aware that all the answers to life are found in God. The natural man grovels in the earth and seeks and finds that which is futile and temporary while the spiritual man soars on wings of eagles (Is 40:31) and seeks and finds righteousness and God’s incomparable and everlasting blessings and companionship.
- Ecclesiastes 1:13 The “wisdom” of Proverbs is not the “wisdom” of Ecclesiastes. The former is godly wisdom; the latter is usually human wisdom.
- Ecclesiastes 1:13 Heb Elohim: mighty, creator, ruler of man and nature.
The Futility of Pleasure and Possessions
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure and gratification; so enjoy yourself and have a good time.” But behold, this too was vanity (futility, meaninglessness). I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to gratify myself with wine while [at the same time] having my mind remain steady and guide me wisely; and how to take control of foolishness, until I could see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made great works: I built houses for myself; I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and orchards for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made pools of water for myself from which to water the forest and make the trees bud. I bought male and female slaves and had slaves born in my house. I also possessed herds and flocks larger than any who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male singers and female singers, and the delights and pleasures of men—[a]many [b]concubines.
So I became great and excelled more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also remained with me. Whatever my eyes looked at with desire I did not refuse them. I did not withhold from my heart any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor; and this was my reward for all my labor. Then I considered all which my hands had done and labored to do, and behold, all was vanity and chasing after the wind and there was no profit (nothing of lasting value) under the sun.
Wisdom Excels Folly
So I turned to consider [secular] wisdom, madness, and folly; for what will the man do who succeeds the king? Nothing except what has already been done. Then I saw that [even secular] wisdom [that brings sorrow] is better than [the pleasures of] folly and self-indulgence as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I know that [in the end] one fate happens to them both. Then I said to myself, “As it happens to the fool, so death will also happen to me. What use is it then for me to be extremely wise?” Then I said in my heart, “This too is vanity (meaningless).” For there is no [more] lasting remembrance of the wise man than of the fool, since in the days to come all will be long forgotten. And how does the wise man die? Even as the fool! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun caused me only great sorrow; because all is futility and chasing after the wind.
The Futility of Labor
So I hated all the fruit (gain) of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will succeed me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity (futility, self-conceit). So I turned aside and let my heart despair over all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun. For there is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, yet gives his legacy to one who has not labored for it. This too is vanity and a great evil. For what does a man get from all his labor and from the striving and sorrow of his heart with which he labors under the sun? For all his days his work is painful and sorrowful; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity (worthless).
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and assure himself that there is good in his labor. Even this, I have seen, is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to the person who pleases Him God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who pleases God. This too is vanity and chasing after the wind.
- Ecclesiastes 2:8 Solomon’s reign began under most promising conditions, but soon his own “wisdom” alone was guiding him. He openly affronted God by taking many wives, including pagan women. They seduced him into tolerating and later practicing idolatry (1 Kin 11:1ff).
- Ecclesiastes 2:8 See note Gen 22:24.
A Time for Everything
There is a season (a time appointed) for everything and a time for every delight and event or purpose under heaven—
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to [a]tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to keep silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.
What profit is there for the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the task which God has given to the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.
God Set Eternity in the Heart of Man
He has made everything beautiful and appropriate in its time. He has also planted eternity [a sense of divine purpose] in the human heart [a mysterious longing which nothing under the sun can satisfy, except God]—yet man cannot find out (comprehend, grasp) what God has done (His overall plan) from the beginning to the end.
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good as long as they live; and also that every man should eat and drink and see and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God. I know that whatever God does, it endures forever; nothing can be added to it nor can anything be taken from it, for God does it so that men will fear and worship Him [with awe-filled reverence, knowing that He is God]. That which is has already been, and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by [so that history repeats itself].
Moreover, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous and the wicked,” for there is a time [appointed] for every matter and for every deed. I said to myself regarding the sons of men, “God is surely testing them in order for them to see that [by themselves, without God] they are [only] animals.” For the [earthly] fate of the sons of men and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no preeminence or advantage for man [in and of himself] over an animal, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows if the spirit of man ascends upward and the spirit of the animal descends downward to the earth? So I have seen that there is nothing better than that a man should be happy in his own works and activities, for that is his portion (share). For who will bring him [back] to see what will happen after he is gone?
- Ecclesiastes 3:7 This may be a reference to the practice of tearing one’s clothes as a sign of mourning which began early among the Hebrews. Cf Gen 37:29. There are many references to this in the Old Testament. Solomon was no doubt familiar with this practice as his own father engaged in it with his contemporaries. Cf 2 Sam 3:31.